4 unconventional but proven methods to improve employee performance

high performance and employee performance

There are a number of unconventional ways organisations and their HR professionals can improve employee performance, writes Murray Priestman – who adds that these ideas are backed up by serious academic research

Human resources as a discipline has a pretty poor reputation, and in many organisations the function seems to exist largely to keep employees in the money and out of court. It can sometimes be easy to forget that one of the most important roles of HR is to maximise employee performance. That’s what all the painful activity associated with appraisals, ratings and feedback conversations is ultimately for – but even this can often end up with a focus on process and policy, with the strategic goal, a high-performance organisation, lost along the way.

So perhaps HR leaders should take a step back and think more creatively about how to drive high performance. Why not set aside the forms and templates, the bell curves and rating scales, and consider four very different ways you could improve the performance of your employees?

1. Put away the smartphones
Yes, it’s fairly obvious that constantly picking up your phone every time it pings is a distraction. And yes, if you’re giving a presentation or talking to your team and half of them have their faces in their laps staring at screens then you can be pretty sure they are not as focused as they could be.

But did you know that even just seeing your smartphone reduces your intelligence? Researchers found that you don’t even have to be using your phone for it to have a negative impact on your performance; it may look harmless sitting face down next to your laptop but if you can see it then it’s making you dumber.

In other words, if you’re giving your employees company phones then you’re also giving them something that can actively lower their performance. So why not let them know this? Encourage people to hide their phones in their pockets and have a “no phones” rule in meetings. The research suggests your performance will improve as a result.

“If you’re giving your employees company phones then you’re also giving them something that can actively lower their performance”

2. Play the right music
You already know that music affects your mood, and potentially your performance: you’ve seen athletes with their headphones on before big events, listening to the playlist that gets them ready to do their best. And when you lay on your bed as a teenager, wondering why he never called you back then it wasn’t upbeat dance music that you listened to. Music has a powerful effect on mood and behaviour.

The science behind this is unambiguous, and according to Costas Karageorghis, who has authored over 100 studies on the subject, music is “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.” In one typical study, IT workers who listened to music produced higher quality work more quickly than those who didn’t.

So how can music improve performance at work? You could play upbeat music in the lobby on Monday mornings to banish post-weekend blues, but that might be a little too much to start with. Better to think about the individual implications: is it worth highlighting some of the benefits to staff, or encouraging managers to think more creatively about this?

At the very least you could have a word with the old-school managers who react violently every time one of their Millennials puts on their headphones at their desk; it’s not just the modern world they are railing against, it’s science.

3. Redecorate the place
What colour are your office walls? Do you think about the colour of the meeting room before you book it? If not then perhaps it’s time to think about what effect colour has on performance.

Studies show that the colour red can help improve performance in tasks requiring attention to detail or memory recall, while blue colours are more likely to improve creative thinking and stimulate imagination.

Now it’s true that the research on colour psychology is a little flaky, but the point here is to encourage you to think about the physical environment, and specifically the colours that you use. Is it worth having certain meeting rooms or areas that are used for brainstorming and creative tasks, and others that are for more structured activity (budget reviews, for example)?

“If there’s a chance you could improve employee performance then shouldn’t you consider trying something new?”

There’s enough evidence to suggest that thinking a little more carefully about what can of paint to slap on the walls in each room could make a difference to what happens in it, so why not think about what that could mean for your office?

4. Manage your circadian rhythm
Your circadian rhythm is what tells you when to wake, eat and sleep – your body clock, in other words. It’s slightly different for everyone, and it has a big impact on your performance.

Understanding this allows you to manage the consequences. For example, people are typically most alert – their highest cognitive performance – around 10.30 am, tailing off to a mid-afternoon low, and factors such as international travel can be hugely disruptive to your rhythm.

What implications does that have for when to schedule that crucial budget sign-off meeting? If you have a lot of staff who travel internationally then could you help them understand what the jetlag is doing to their brainpower? Trying to tell people how and when to sleep might be going a bit too far, but sharing information on the subject is a good way to raise awareness and help your people understand the issue.

So that’s four less conventional ways to improve your employees’ performance. You might think they’re a little foolish, and certainly, there’s not many HR functions take a conscious position on, say, what music to play at work.

But consider this; all four are backed up by serious academic research that suggests they might make a difference, and there are a few reasons not to just read this, smile indulgently and move on.

Firstly, if there’s a chance you could improve employee performance then shouldn’t you consider trying something new? Secondly, sharing the research with employees might encourage someone in your firm to try something different that could shift the way their team works.

Lastly, even if you pass on this article and no-one does anything with it, you’ve still shown your organisation that you’re thinking a little differently about performance, and that in turn might encourage them to do the same. And who knows where that might lead you?